Firefighter sifts through disasters
In 2003, Kevin Ogden helped find pieces of the space shuttle Columbia and cleaned up after the California wildfires.
By JAY CRIDLIN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 26, 2003

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VALRICO -Kevin Ogden can hardly believe how busy he was in 2003.

The 25-year-old volunteered to help clean up two of the year's biggest disaster areas - the wreckage of the space shuttle Columbia and the massive southern California wildfires.

"It's pretty astonishing," said Ogden, a captain with the Bloomingdale-Valrico Volunteer Fire Department. "That's kind of my own little piece of history."

Ogden, a member of the Division of Forestry's out-of-state emergency team, wasn't the only Hillsborough firefighter drafted to work the Columbia wreckage or the California wildfires. But he was the only one to do both.

"It's just an adrenaline rush, helping other people out," said Ogden, who also battled several hundred acres of Colorado wildfires in July and August.

Ogden, who is single and lives in Brandon, has been a firefighter since graduating from Durant High School in 1997. Unlike most of his peers at the Bloomingdale-Valrico station, fighting fires is Ogden's full-time job.

Last year, he signed on as one of the 20 Hillsborough County firefighters on the Division of Forestry's emergency team. Whenever disaster breaks out, the Division of Forestry sends out its troops.

During the two weeks he spent searching for the Columbia near Corsicana, Texas, Ogden and his 20-man crew marched 10 feet apart for miles in 10-acre thickets and 100-acre pastures.

Ogden found three 6-inch carbon discs, as black and gritty as roofing material, which likely composed part of the shuttle's interior structuring.

Other searchers on his team found pieces of the Columbia's fuel line, nose cone and reflective solar panels. Each time a volunteer saw what looked like a part, they gathered around as NASA scientists handled and identified it.

Then in October came the southern California wildfires. The blazes scorched more than 750,000 acres and 3,400 homes, and came at a time when the nation's eyes were already directed west for the California gubernatorial recall election.

Ogden reached California shortly before a little much-needed rainfall helped douse the flames, and he stayed for just four days. But he was positioned near the heart of the blazes, at the Cedar Fire near San Diego, which burned 280,000 acres.

"It was like a nuclear bomb had gone off," he said. "The power lines were melted across the pavement."

The work was mostly cleanup, shoveling ashes and debris to clear roads and residential areas. Most of the homes in Ogden's work area were evacuated, but he did get the chance to talk briefly with stunned local residents. He even participated in a funeral procession for a firefighter who was killed.

"It really hits home, knowing that you could be in the same situation at any time," he said.

Crews worked 16-hour days, sleeping on tents near the damp, smoky disaster areas yet going days between showers.

Still, Ogden said it's worth the sacrifice to help disaster victims. And whenever the government needs him in 2004, Ogden said he'll be ready.

- Jay Cridlin can be reached at 661-2442 or cridlin@sptimes.com